No.1 What’s your real question?

Welcome to the first in our series of ‘Top Tips’. We hope you will find them useful yet concise, and of course we welcome feedback at any time. If you have any particular topics or areas on which you would appreciate some tips, do let us know and we’ll do our best to incorporate them into future editions.

No.1- “What’s your real question?”

You’ll probably be familiar with the expression “a question pre-supposes the structure of its answer” – particularly if you’ve attended any of our courses recently!  It means that in any question posed, there is an implied structure that an answer must fit in order for the questioner to be satisfied and achieve their outcome. This concept can be applied in two different ways…

1. Every time someone asks a question, they are giving you a lot of information about how they’re thinking and what’s important to them. Therefore, by listening carefully to the precise question someone is asking it should be possible to work out what they’re really interested in.  This is likely to make your response much more effective.

Here are some tips on how to do this successfully…

  • In your mind’s eye, mentally step into their world and ask yourself “What has to be true for this person to say that thing, in that way, at this time?” (i.e. what values are they operating from?). This is particularly helpful when the question feels ‘difficult’ or challenging in some way – it doesn’t mean you have to agree with their perspective; you’re merely seeking to understand it!
  • What language patterns are explicit (or implied) in the structure of their question – e.g. what representational system(s) (seeing, hearing, feeling language), meta programmes (filters) and/or meta model patterns (deletions, generalisations, distortions) are they using?
  • In light of that information, how can you structure your response in order for it to
    ‘make sense’ to them?

On that basis, what information you can glean from this question?…

“I just don’t see it – we’ve tried this sort of thing in the past and it’s never worked properly. Don’t you think it’s about time we tried a new approach with a clean sheet of paper, rather than attempting to fit a square peg into a round hole?” …you could find examples of visual language (see), filters for time (past) and difference (new approach), generalisation (never), kinaesthetic metaphors (paper, square peg in round holes), and implied values of innovation and creativity.

So, how could you now frame a response to cover as many of those areas as possible?

2. When you’re the one asking the questions, the same principle applies. You can frame your questions to make it most likely that you will achieve the outcome you want.

Ask yourself –

  • Where do I want to take this person in their thinking with the question I am about to ask? (i.e. what’s my outcome).
  • Is the form of words I’m about to use most likely to take them there – i.e. what is presupposed in the structure of my question?

Even subtle changes in the structure of a question can make a marked difference on where it takes the other person in their thinking. For example, consider what is pre-supposed in the structure of these questions…

“Does that make sense?” vs. “How much sense is this making?”
“How willing are you to commit to that?” vs. “Are you willing to commit to that?”
“Are you going to do X or Y?” vs “What are you going to do?”
“What will help you to move forward?” vs “What stops you moving forward?”

There is really no such thing as a ‘right’ or ‘wrong’ question; only one that best matches the outcome you are going for. The important factor is does it take you closer to where you (and more importantly the other person), want to be?

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